Sims: Chris Mackie’s resignation from the health unit will not be his last bow

It was no surprise on Monday when the Middlesex-London Health Unit announced that Chris Mackie had stepped down as Chief Medical Officer after more than four months away.

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It was no surprise on Monday when the Middlesex-London Health Unit announced that Chris Mackie had stepped down as Chief Medical Officer after more than four months away.

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The whole saga followed a pattern familiar to public institutions: a high official disappears under a cloud, the employer says nothing, months pass, memories fade, then there is a resignation.

What was intriguing about the Mackie case, which erupted in the midst of our biggest public health crisis, was how the health board handled it, even with a closed meeting with Mackie the week last, and still said nothing but “I wish him well.”

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Meanwhile, Mackie, who was a fixture on Twitter during his tenure in public health’s top job until the end of October, erupted on Monday with a 45-tweet letter to the community highlighting the successes under his leadership, as well as a personal statement praising the health unit and the community. Then he said it was time for a change.

Everyone is really trying to keep it a happy parting of ways.

But there has already been a little more than that. A bit of background for all of us who have been distracted by Omicron, lockdowns, restrictions, truck convoys and worries about peace in Ukraine, ever since Mackie left the stage.

Mackie came onto the scene in 2013, touted as a public health policy Wunderkind. During his tenure he has been outspoken and a bit of a maverick, supporting causes such as banning sugary drinks and increasing support for Indigenous communities.

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Its biggest pushes, before the pandemic, involved the crushing opioid crisis. He advocated, even in the face of setback, for safe consumption sites and championed one of the first naloxone dispensing programs in Ontario.

When the pandemic hit, Middlesex-London looked to him for answers and comfort, especially during those dark early days of 2020. There were stumbles, particularly in his initial stance on using of the face mask, but it remained the primary and most recognizable public health messenger.

But in July 2020, Mackie was suddenly replaced as chief executive of the health unit in a move he says freed him to focus on the pandemic. The health board remained silent.

A year later, Mackie and Acting Medical Officer of Health Alex Summers were in the midst of the biggest vaccination campaign in memory. Both have proven to be strong advocates of temporary warrants and vaccination certificates.

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And, Mackie was a constant at bi-weekly public health press briefings until late October, when he disappeared. In mid-November, the board of health announced that Mackie was on leave, but gave no reason for leaving.

Soon after, there were reports of harassment involving a top doctor and complaints from health unit unions about a toxic work environment. These issues faded into the background once Omicron overwhelmed everything.

  1. Chris Mackie, Medical Officer of Health for London and Middlesex County.  (File photo)

    Chris Mackie speaks out after stepping down as the city’s top public health official

  2. Chris Mackie, Middlesex-London Medical Officer of Health who is on furlough, arrives for a closed-door Health Board meeting at the Middlesex-London Health Unit offices at Citi Plaza in London on Thursday March 3, 2022. ( Mike Hensen/ The Free London Press)

    Chris Mackie meets with health unit board behind closed doors

  3. Middlesex-London Medical Officer Chris Mackie speaks to the media on March 4, 2020 after a session with London healthcare providers, police, fire and paramedics as well as officials from Fanshawe and the 'West as Alex Summers, Associate Medical Officer of Health, looks on son.  (Mike Hensen/The London Free Press)

    Sims: Chris Mackie’s resignation from the health unit will not be his last bow

  4. Chris Mackie, the new Medical Officer of the Middlesex-London Health Unit, speaks to the London Free Press on June 6, 2013. (MIKE HENSEN/The London Free Press)

    PHOTOS: Chris Mackie’s eventful nine years as head of the health unit

  5. London Medical Officer Chris Mackie of the Middlesex-London Health Unit.  (Mike Hensen/The London Free Press)

    London’s top public health official takes leave

  6. Chris Mackie (Mike Hensen/The London Free Press)

    Union seeks clarification on Chris Mackie in rare in-person health board meeting

  7. Middlesex-London's top public health doctor Chris Mackie, left, and Shanker Nesathurai of Haldimand-Norfolk (file photos)

    London and Norfolk’s top doctors receive six-figure pandemic OT payout

Mackie appeared publicly for the first time on Thursday at the health board. The board said Monday the resignation took effect Friday so Mackie could “pursue other opportunities.”

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Mackie, who declined to give interviews, acknowledged in his statement that he regretted not helping out during Omicron and praised Summers, “the best associate medical officer anyone could ask for,” for taking the reins during of the last four months.

“I know the health unit will continue to be in good hands under his leadership,” Mackie wrote.

Hopefully that’s a good hint that Summers will soon drop the word “acting” from his title to become the permanent Medical Officer of Health. He was great and the board should reward him.

As for Mackie, he left some enigmatic clues. He said he left last fall because “I needed a break”, after two years of working on the pandemic. Over the past four months, after much consultation and reflection, he has decided that “the time has come for a new chapter in my career”.

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Apparently that chapter is in place, but Mackie said he wasn’t ready to announce what it was just yet, only that “the role will be a great opportunity for professional growth in a place where I can really do the difference”.

Mackie’s sudden review of the health unit’s accomplishments, heartfelt letter to the community, and stunned silence from the health board make me think Mackie won’t be leaving the scene for long.

And there’s a provincial election in less than 90 days. London has two ridings that have yet to nominate Liberal candidates.

“Stay tuned!” Mackie tweeted.

We will do it.

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